“Beatrix? Are you okay?”
Relief washes over me—I’ve travelled twice since last speaking to him at Lindisfarne, and I was starting to panic I’d lost the connection.
“I’m all right.” I focus on the ground. I’m kneeling on a cobbled road. The stones are wet, and there is a distinct fishy smell in the air. “Have you worked out how to get me back?”
“Bea, you wouldn’t believe what’s happened.” Matthew’s voice fades in and out like an old radio being tuned. “...in the lab, and somehow they’ve uploaded a virus...”
I turn cold. “Matt? Who’s uploaded a virus?”
“Saboteurs,” he says, clear as anything. “Protesters. Not everyone agrees with our research. They think we’re... Accused us of interfering... Timelines...”
I screw up my eyes in frustration. “Matt?”
“Hang in there, babe. We’ll bring you back. It just might take a few days.”
Days? I have no idea what that means in my mixed up timeline. That could equate to mere seconds or a lifetime of travelling through time. “Wait, I...” But the connection’s broken, and the hissing in my head fades.
When I raise my head, I am in some kind of harbour. Boats are moored in rows, and the sea laps against the legs of a wooden pier. Although the day is warm, the water is grey and unwelcoming. It can only be the English Channel, I think somewhat wryly as I remember childhood summers splashing about in the icy water.
Voices sound from along the harbour, and I turn my head to see three fishermen hefting barrels of fish from a boat onto the dock. Vaguely, I wonder why none of them is helping me. They cast me suspicious glances, but none of them comes to see why I am still on my hands and knees. Have I been drinking? I don’t feel drunk, although I have a sour taste in my mouth, and my head aches.
I get to my feet, then stand there for a moment, hands on my knees. I feel weak, and it’s not only my head that aches—my whole body throbs. Have I been in a battle?
Finally, I stand upright and take a proper look around the harbour. The boats are wooden with sails, and the men’s clothing is basic: woollen tunics and breeches, with leather shoes. Medieval, then? It’s difficult to narrow it down, because peasants’ clothing changed so little over hundreds of years.
I stumble forward to lean heavily on a barrel. It’s full of fish, their glassy eyes blinking up at me.
“Ned—go away.” One of the fishermen comes closer, but stops about six feet away. “Don’t touch them.”
“I wasn’t going to,” I protest. My voice is deep—I’m a man, then, Edward, a distinct Saxon or medieval name. The fisherman’s face shows fear—although he knows me, he’s terrified of me.
“Go away,” he says again, swiping an arm as if to scare me. I turn and totter away.
Further along, I pause, exhausted, by a warehouse, and I lean my head on the wall to survey the scene. Other men are moving cargo from boats to the dock—I spy large flagons of wine, bales of cloth, boxes probably containing exotic foods. A man is chopping fish, throwing the sightless heads in a pile of rubbish. Rats skitter across the stones; a dog pees up against the wall.
Pushing myself off, I head farther down the road. It seems strangely empty—not what I would have expected from a bustling medieval town during the middle of the day. It’s hot, and sweat runs down my back. It’s probably because I’m wearing a coat in spite of the fact it’s obviously summer—or do I have a fever? I touch my hand to my brow, then lower it to find it moist. My head pounds.
I weave my way along alleyways, and if I do meet someone, they take pains to avoid me. Where am I going? To Ned’s house? I feel distinctly unwell. Why have I travelled to this point in time, to this person? I lurch against the wall, and my fingers fumble at the latch of a wooden door. Turning the handle, I stumble inside.
It’s dark, and it smells foetid. I blunder through the small room with its two wooden chairs and table, and through to a bedroom. I recoil at the smell. A woman lies on the bed, her head turned away from me. She is breathing—I can see the rise and fall of her chest, but it’s shallow, and her skin is whiter than milk. The blanket covering her is filthy, stained with a dark liquid. I shudder to think what it is.
“Maud?” I walk up to the bed and sit by her side. “I brought some bread.” I extract half a loaf from inside my coat, and drop the garment to the floor. It disturbs a rat gnawing on something mouldy in the corner, and it shoots off into the darkness.
The room is insufferably hot, and she pushes at the bedclothes, shoving them to one side. My gaze falls onto her pale body, as she’s naked beneath the dirty, stained blanket, and my heart stops. On the side of her neck is a large black lump.
I watch, horrified, mesmerised, as Ned removes the blanket, dips a cloth into a pail of water by the bed, and proceeds to wipe her with it, presumably trying to cool her, as she’s sweating and shivering at the same time. As he sponges down her thin body, I see similar black swellings in her groin. At one point, his cloth brushes the swelling, and she screams, then lapses into sobs.
Ned stands, pressing a hand to his mouth, and stumbles back into the other room. Now I know why he’s aching, why he has a headache. He lifts his woollen tunic and cranes his head to look at his throbbing armpit—the bubo glares back at him, promising death.
The same rat I had disturbed—or is it another?—runs across the floor to a pile of dirty cloth in the corner. It carries with it the fleas that have infected Ned and his wife with the Black Death, the fourteenth-century outbreak of the Bubonic Plague.
I know that graves dating to around 1338 in Kyrgyzstan bear inscriptions that refer to plague, and that it probably spread from there to China and India along the Silk Road, and thence to Europe on merchant ships. It is now June or July in 1348, and I must be in Melcombe Regis—the port in Dorset where a ship from Genoa brings rats and cloth carrying their plague-infested fleas. By autumn, it will have spread to London; in winter, it will turn into the even deadlier form, pneumonic plague, spread by coughing and sneezing caused by winter colds, and then to septicaemic plague, spread through the blood, which is almost always fatal.
Ned and Maud will die, and so will a third to a half of the population of Europe. Whole towns will be wiped out. It will be one of the most devastating pandemics in human history.
My head crackles. Before the scene fades to blackness, I say a silent prayer for Ned, and hope his death will be quick.